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High court refuses to hear ferret case

April 14, 1997

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court refused Monday to hear an appeal by two Washington County girls who wanted Maryland health officials to compensate them for their pet ferret that was destroyed to perform a rabies test.

The nation's highest court, without comment, turned away arguments made on behalf of Gina Raynor and Heather Sauders.

Lawyers for the girls contended in a suit against the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that their private property - the ferret - had been taken for a public purpose and that the Constitution's Fifth Amendment requires "just compensation."

Steve Raynor, Gina's father, said he had not expected to win the suit but felt it was important to focus attention on property rights.

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"It's not surprising. It's important but kind of a little thing too," the Hagerstown resident said. "It's important to my daughter because it was her pet. They never gave a real valid reason for killing the pet."

Gina and Heather both were 12 years old in December 1994 when they took the ferret, Rasha, to a slumber party.

Gina, then 12, had taken the ferret to the party to sell to another girl because her father said she could not keep two ferrets.

During the party, Rasha bit a 13-year-old girl on the finger while trying to eat a cookie.

The parents of the girl who was bitten demanded that Raynor give the animal to health officials so they could test it for rabies. The test required killing the animal and analyzing its brain tissue.

Such a test is the only method for determining whether an animal has the fatal disease, and the test cannot be done without destroying the animal.

Steven Raynor at first refused to surrender the pet, relenting only after the health department sought a court order.

Maryland Assistant Attorney General Andrew Baida said he sympathized with Raynor but said the court did the only thing it could.

"I don't think there was any major constitutional issue to be settled here," he said.

Baida said the test had to be conducted in order to determine that the ferret did not have rabies.

"The alternative was to make a young child undergo a series of painful and potentially harmful rabies shots," he said. "That's an easy choice from a constitutional perspective."

But Gina, now a freshman at North Hagerstown High School, said she was upset because the tests showed the ferret was not infected with the disease - something she was convinced of all along. She said the ferret never went outdoors.

"It was more the fact that she was fine, healthy, young," Gina said. "I was absolutely positive that she didn't" have rabies.

Gina testified before the Maryland General Assembly on legislation to reclassify ferrets as domestic pets, placing them in the same category as dogs and cats. Previously, state officials treated ferrets as wild animals, said Diane Rogers, legislative committee chairwoman for the American Ferret Association.

The association, which paid the legal fees for the suit, has been fighting for years for the law changes, Rogers said. She said ferrets now are required to be vaccinated against rabies. When they bite someone, a risk assessment is conducted, as it is for cats and dogs, she said.

Fran Wiles, owner of Fran's Ferret Rescue, in Gettysburg, Pa., said she was happy to see the law changed. She said she thinks Rasha would have stood a better chance if the ferret were a more expensive animal.

"We care as much about our ferrets as people who care about their horses, or something of that nature," Wiles said.

State courts had ruled that the health department's decision to kill the ferret was a valid one.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals earlier called the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's action "a lawful use of the state's police powers because it is rationally calculated to protect the public health."

The Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, refused last November to hear the girls' appeal.

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